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Eagles’ defense may be ‘hitting its stride,’ Jonathan Gannon says; team signs Kerryon Johnson to provide running back depth

Gannon’s group has rebounded from a rocky start to the season and put together a promising six-game stretch.

Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett kicks his leg after stoping New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley with teammate middle linebacker T.J. Edwards in the second quarter on Sunday, December 26, 2021 in Philadelphia.
Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett kicks his leg after stoping New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley with teammate middle linebacker T.J. Edwards in the second quarter on Sunday, December 26, 2021 in Philadelphia.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

When evaluating his defense, Jonathan Gannon says two numbers matter.

The first-year defensive coordinator in the past has highlighted the importance of limiting explosive plays, forcing turnovers, and getting sacks, but the metrics he used to gauge his group’s recent play can simply be found in the Eagles’ win-loss column.

“I might sound negligent, but I really don’t read or care about stats,” Gannon said. “Eight-and-seven; that’s the stat that I know, so that shows us we got a long way to go. Am I happy that we’re improving week to week? Yes. I think the players are doing an excellent job and I think the coaches are doing a really good job.”

Gannon’s group has rebounded from a rocky start to the season and put together a promising six-game stretch. The defense hasn’t allowed a team to surpass 300 yards in the last four games and has held teams to fewer than 20 points in five of the last six.

» READ MORE: Joe Banner: Jonathan Gannon not a serious head-coaching candidate just yet

The Eagles have been helped out by their run against backup and journeyman quarterbacks during that time. In the last six weeks, they faced three backup quarterbacks, and the starters they matched up against were Zach Wilson, Daniel Jones, and Teddy Bridgewater.

Lackluster competition aside, the progress has been tangible. The Eagles rank 15th in defense-adjusted value over average by Football Outsiders, which takes into account strength of opponent. Predictably, they do even better in traditional stats that don’t account for who’s on the other side; they rank fifth in total yards allowed and 12th in points given up.

Gannon said the defense is headed in the right direction, while also reiterating that all the progress mentioned above won’t matter if Taylor Heinicke and the Washington Football Team torch his defense this Sunday with a playoff berth potentially hanging in the balance.

“I feel like we’re starting to hit our stride a little bit,” Gannon said. “With saying that, it’s a week-to-week league, guys. You know that. The challenge is ahead of us for this upcoming week, and just because you think you’re playing well for the last couple weeks doesn’t mean that’s going to go onto the field and you just show up and that is what it is. So, we got to put the work forth ahead to give us a chance to win the game.”

Heinicke was on the COVID list last week when the Eagles beat Washington, 27-17, at home. If the Eagles beat Washington this weekend, they could clinch a playoff berth with a Minnesota Vikings loss and either a San Francisco 49ers win over the lowly Houston Texans or a New Orleans Saints loss to Carolina.

Even if they don’t get the help they need this week, the Eagles would make the playoffs if they win their remaining two games, against Washington and the Dallas Cowboys.

Partly because of the playoff push, Gannon dismissed the rumors that he’ll be a candidate for head-coaching vacancies when asked Tuesday. NFL Network first floated Gannon’s name as a possible candidate and Tuesday marked the first day teams with established vacancies like the Jacksonville Jaguars and Las Vegas Raiders can request interviews for them.

“I haven’t really talked to Nick about that,” Gannon said, referring to head coach Nick Sirianni. “In the offseason we talked about it a little bit. I appreciate the question, but, guys, like come on now. We’re fighting to get into the dance. I always talk to our players about, ‘Be where your feet are.’ What that means is I’m not thinking about the future. I’m not thinking about the past. I’m thinking about beating Washington. So that’s my sole focus with that.”

Sirianni said Monday that he encouraged his entire staff to prepare for head-coaching interviews during the offseason to make it easier to interview while staying focused on game-planning midseason. He also gave Gannon a vote of confidence.

“I think Jonathan would be an awesome head coach,” Sirianni said. “I really wouldn’t want to make a joke right there and be like, ‘He’d be terrible,’ because I really want to keep him here because I think so highly of him. But I think he would be awesome, again, for the same reasons that I hired him to be the defensive coordinator, would be the same reasons I think he would be a really good head coach.

“Obviously, when people on your staff and people in the building are getting opportunities like that or get mentioned like that, that means you’re doing some good things,” Sirianni added.

Eagles sign Kerryon Johnson

With Miles Sanders sidelined for at least this weekend, the Eagles signed running back Kerryon Johnson to bolster their running back depth.

Johnson, 24, spent training camp with the Eagles after the team claimed him off of waivers in the offseason. He was a second-round pick by the Detroit Lions in 2018 but knee injuries have derailed his career. He didn’t make the Eagles’ 53-man roster out of camp and has played in just one game so far this season, logging nine special-teams snaps for the 49ers in Week 3.

Sanders was ruled out for Sunday’s game with a broken left hand that required surgery on Monday. The Eagles are also waiting to see if Jordan Howard can recover from the stinger he suffered last Sunday against the New York Giants quickly enough for this weekend.

If Howard can’t go, Johnson would be the third running back behind Boston Scott and Kenny Gainwell.

Eagles separate QBs

With the league’s COVID numbers continuing to rise at an alarming rate, Sirianni said Monday that the team would keep its quarterbacks separated to ensure the entire position group doesn’t get wiped out from a possible outbreak.

» READ MORE: Mike Sielski: The Eagles don't need Jalen Hurts to be the next Randall Cunningham

“We’re going to be even more safe with them being in separate rooms,” Sirianni said.

The Eagles had veteran quarterback Josh McCown on their practice squad for part of last season while he joined meetings remotely from his Texas home, but this is the first time they’ve separated the entire quarterback room in the last two seasons. The Eagles have seven players on their active roster on the COVID list and two players from the practice squad sidelined after adding John Hightower to the list Tuesday.

Gannon said Tuesday there’s a chance the defense will also implement new measures to contain outbreaks.

“We’ll sit down with the head coach and Howie this afternoon about that,” he said, referring to Howie Roseman. “I’m sure whatever plan they have in place, I tell our guys all the time, we adapt and adjust. Nobody wants to hear about problems, just want to hear about solutions.”